Miami Dysfunction: Election runoff an embarrassment for city where voters are MIA | Opinion

Miami, Florida, September 14, 2023 - A defiant Miami City Commissioner, Alex Diaz De La Portilla speaks to reporters after he was let out of TGK detention center following his arrest.

Is representative government broken in Miami?

It seems that way after Tuesday’s low-turnout election resulted in a runoff for suspended Miami City Commissioner Alex Diaz de la Portilla, who has been charged with money laundering, bribery and official misconduct, and yet is still running for re-election.

Just 12.58% of Miami voters cast ballots in the three district elections that day. Miami is a city with about 450,000 residents.

That’s pretty typical, but it’s still a terrible turnout number. It’s far worse than places like Miami Beach, whose voters are clearly more engaged, with a 29.52% turnout, or in Surfside, with 40.40%, according to unofficial results.

Just 4,292 people voted in the five-way District 1 Miami commission race. Diaz de la Portilla got 36.6% of the vote — but that was just 1,571 people. The next closest candidate is auto parts dealer Miguel Gabela, who got 28.82% of the vote, just 1,237 people. The runoff is Nov. 21, and runoff elections often have even lower turnouts.

Miami a ‘gateway’

Miami isn’t just any city. It has outsized importance in the region as the often-touted “gateway to Latin America.” Just over 15,000 people voted on who’s representing three out of five commission seats and will have power over a $2.5 billion annual budget.

How embarrassing and sad.

Unfortunately, Tuesday’s elections aren’t out of the ordinary. Miami’s voter participation hasn’t surpassed 16% in any election in the past decade and it’s been as low as 8.5%, data from the county’s Supervisor of Elections office shows.

With so few people making decisions about who represents us, Miami’s residents are getting a skewed version of democracy, which only works if the people in it actually participate.

If city commissioners wanted to boost citizen involvement, they would explore the idea of moving municipal elections from odd-numbered years to presidential and midterm elections, when turnout is naturally higher. Other cities that have done so saw improvements. In Los Angeles, turnout grew 400% in 2020 compared to 2015, according to a study by the University of California San Diego.

It’s not a foolproof solution. An attempt to move elections in Coral Gables failed in September because some commissioners argued local elections would struggle to gain traction and cost more amid higher-profile state and national races. The Gables at least tried to engage more voters, even though its turnout — close to 21% this year — looks stellar compared to Miami’s.

That makes it even more obvious that the status quo in Miami isn’t working.

Miami commissioners should also look into expanding the number of commission seats from five to possibly seven. A larger elected body might make it easier to curb abuse by diluting the power of officials who hold too much of it.

Dysfunctional city

The Herald Editorial Board advocated for these changes in a series called Miami Dysfunction. We hope to spur voters to act. They would have the ultimate say on any changes via a ballot referendum.

The current system, though, works just fine for a lot of the people in power — and Diaz de la Portilla’s top spot on Tuesday is a testament to that. Voters and local organizations shouldn’t wait for City Hall to act. They can organize petition drives to put the changes on the ballot. That’s a long and expensive process, but it might be Miami’s only hope.

Of course, we don’t blame voters if they feel discouraged by the city’s seemingly endless scandals. When you see your mayor, Francis Suarez, being investigated for taking payments from a developer doing business in the city, and you watch a federal jury decide that a longtime commissioner, Joe Carollo, abused his powers by weaponizing city code enforcement to punish two local businessmen who supported his opponent, how much faith do you place in government?

And now there’s the case against Diaz de la Portilla, whose arrest for allegedly supporting a development project in exchange for $245,000 in political donations led Gov. Ron DeSantis to suspend him.

Miami has a civic engagement problem. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Voters should demand a larger commission and a change in election cycles to get more people involved. Waiting for elected officials, who have a vested interest in doing nothing, will get us nowhere.